Butler County is turning to big data as its newest tool to battle the heroin scourge.
The county will soon use live data from emergency rooms, first responders and the coroner’s office to uncover hot spots where there have been spikes in overdoses.
“Overdose data in real time allows communities — first responders, policymakers, treatment providers, emergency departments — to understand what’s happening on the streets, issue public safety alerts, and to make data-informed decisions about how to target and deploy resources,” said Kelly Firesheets with Interact for Health.
Butler County’s project is part of a regional program, funded by a $100,000, three-year grant developed to address the opiate epidemic in Greater Cincinnati, according to Firesheets.
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In about two months, the data will allow Butler County police, fire and emergency rooms to be prepared and the public notified if there is a particularly virulent threat.
The information will also allow the county to get help to addicts, like Kyle Thompson of Hamilton.
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Thompson said he started smoking marijuana when he was about 13 years old. Now 27, the Hamilton man said he has been on and off heroin for years, but has been clean for the past eight months.
“A lot of people say addiction is a thinking disease or a feeling disease, it’s a disease that effects every area of your life, every aspect of your being and it all stemmed from not loving myself and knowing myself,” Thompson said.
The Butler County Health Department, coroner and mental health and addiction board are working together as a sub group of the countywide task force to cull and eventually disseminate the data. Health Commissioner Jenny Bailer said there is very little heroin in heroin anymore, most often it is cut with Fentanyl — a synthetic opioid that is 50 to 100 times more potent that morphine — so knowing what they are dealing with will help everyone be better prepared and hopefully save lives.
Bailer said they don’t need to know exactly what is in particular bad batch to send out an alert, but that is good information to have to keep track of the problem.
“It’s not important to say what’s in it, what’s important is to say there’s something bad in it right now, try not to use today, or get your drugs from a different source, or staff your ER better, or call in an extra investigator. This is an immediate alert…,” she said. “In order to understand your problem you have to data to tell you what it is.”
With overdoses almost a daily occurrence in Butler County — 381 people died from drug overdoses in the county in 2015 and last year — finding the right threshold for sending an alert is a question the group is still wrestling with.
“We don’t want to cry wolf every time somebody thinks their numbers are up or it’s been a busy day,” Butler County Coroner Dr. Lisa Mannix said.
“We want to be judicious about when we send these out, when is it worth alerting the public,” she said. “We don’t want to hold back but we don’t want to desensitize people, so it’s a fine line especially when your base line is always moving, up.”
Julie Payton, senior director of addiction services for the mental health and addiction board, said they also understand that sending the alerts might be a double edged sword because some addicts won’t take it as a warning.
“When some addicts hear there is a seriously, high potency full of Fentanyl major drug going around, they’re not saying ‘holy camoly I better not use here,’” Payton said. “Some folks are, but some folks are saying ‘I need to go get some’.”
Thompson said he started using drugs after his parents divorced and he felt “resentful and spiteful.” He doesn’t blame his parents, but when his family moved from Hamilton to Ross Twp., he didn’t have any friends until he hooked up with the druggies. A friend turned him on to medication for ADHD, then he turned to marijuana, he did Cocaine and eventually was introduced to heroin first sniffing and then injecting.
“I loved it, a new high, just the way it made me feel, there wasn’t a care in the world. I just felt like a warm rush going through my body, like a warm blanket covering me at all times,” was how he felt the first time he sniffed it. The second time was disastrous.
“My lack of knowledge about what heroin was at the time, that night I kept doing it and doing and more and more. Drug overdose was not a concept to me at this point. I go to lay down to go to sleep and the next thing I know I’m waking up with paramedics all around me, I apparently stopped breathing in my sleep.”
His stepfather was one of the medics on that 911 call and after that his mother got him into treatment. He has been in prison, jail, living in an apartment with no food, heat or electricity. It took an intensive residential program and the 12-step program to pull him out of the abyss of relapses.
Thompson said programs like the data collection and the myriad of others around the county, region, state and country are good but when it comes down to it “the solution lies in the user.”
“If you cut out the demand the supply can’t go anywhere,” Thompson said. “Spreading awareness to using addicts that there is a solution out there, my solution being the 12 steps, I think that would be the most effective means of cutting down all this stuff going on.”
Firesheets said in Hamilton County — the Butler and Hamilton county health departments are partners in the data collection program — they already have been collecting data and sending out alerts. The data has given them a way to target help for addicts.
“The attorney general’s office is planning some sort of canvassing and community outreach in some of the more targeted and hard hit zip codes,” she said. “Just to get out in the community and talk to people, give them information, make sure there is Narcan in the hands of friends and family members. If there are folks that want connections to treatment, start those connections.”
Thompson said its scary out there now and people hooked on heroin really need help.
“With all this Fentanyl crap going on, I’m blessed to have gotten out. I know if I go back out and use again I’m going to die. There’s not a doubt in my mind,” Thompson said. “My mother says it all the time, there’s not even heroin in the heroin anymore it’s all Fentanyl. And this Carfentanyl, two milligrams will kill an elephant. That means you do something the size of a salt granule and you’re dead. It’s insane.”